Growing numbers of universities are being forced to give remedial maths lessons to students who dropped the subject at school, scientists warned yesterday.
The Royal Society of Chemistry claimed teachers want 16-year-olds to drop maths and take easier Alevels purely to boost their school's place in Government league tables.
The society's chief executive Richard Pike said the trend threatened to under-mine Britain's future economic prosperity amid competition from scientists in China. Students taking chemistry and physics at university must have a good grasp of maths, Dr Pike said.
But he added: "Increasingly, universities are mounting remedial sessions for incoming science under-graduates because their maths skills are so limited, with many having stopped formal lessons in mathematics two years earlier at the GCSE level.
"This contrasts starkly with countries like China, in which mathematics is seen as integral to the sciences and to the nation's economy, and is taught to all up to the age of 18.
"There, the concept of remedial courses at university would be inconceivable.
"UK chemistry departments are often world-renowned for their creativity.
"However, mathematics tests set in England by many universities for undergraduate chemistry students in their first term to diagnose remedial requirements are disconcertingly simple. They encapsulate the challenge facing this country."
Dr Pike called for a national investigation into how to tackle the issue, adding: "Our future depends upon it."
The Royal Society of Chemistry is offering a £500 prize to anyone who can answer a sample maths question from a Chinese university entrance test.
A Department for Education spokesman said the numbers of pupils studying science, maths and further maths was increasing. "This trend is repeated at university where 120,000 more young people are studying for science-related degrees than in 1997/98," he said.
He said £30 million would be spent over the next two years on recruiting 3,000 extra science teachers and encouraging more students to study sciences. n Former Education Secretary Baroness Estelle Morris called yesterday for a radical rethink.
She said GCSEs could be abolished under new arrangements where children attend one school from the age of five to 14 and another from 14 to 19.